I’m not sure that academia attracts heresy. Rather I suspect it’s tenure that generates it. In fact since we’re all, by definition, catholic, without the threat of hell – or in our case unemployment – we’d probably all think unclean thoughts.
Some heretics become more notorious than others. Noam Chomsky and Jordan Peterson have made lucrative second careers out of it. But, to bastardize John Milton’s “On his Blindness”, “they also serve who” think globally but act – by which I mean irritate – only locally. The University of Manitoba had its Hymie Rubenstein. Mount Royal University has its Frances Widdowson. And, if I may be allowed such hubris, the U of Lethbridge has, well, me.
Though the only thing Rubenstein, Widdowson, and I have in common is our heresy, heresy begets heresy, which is why it has to be ‘discouraged’ with whatever means are at hand, and with all possible dispatch. Since none of us is OJ Simpson, we don’t have the “Dream Team” to defend us. But here in Canada there are at least two organizations that offer to have our backs: the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), run by St. Mary’s University philosopher Marc Mercer, and the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF), run by lawyer John Carpay. Plus, from south of the 49th, we can call upon Jonathan Haidt’s 3000-strong Heterodox-Academy.
Heterodoxy is synonymous with heresy only where university administrations have opted – as a growing number have – to impose (what might be called) velvet totalitarianism (or VT). VT masquerades its abrogation of academic freedom under the guise of safety. So hate speech – by which is meant speech one hates others to hear – gets ‘deplatformed’ because universities don’t have inexhaustible security budgets. This is the same bizarre reasoning by which the courts used to acquit rapists and admonish their victims for showing too much leg. Better to deplatform the speaker whose views provoke violence than expel the students who actually commit it.
Well okay, so that’s the one side. The flipside of the argument is equally convincing, and it goes like this:
Without consensus no polity could function. For example, even if it should prove false that there’s a scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming (AGW), there’s a public consensus on there being such a consensus. And since doing something about AGW is a collective action problem, anyone undermining that requisite solidarity can be rightly silenced. And so the same holds true of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the I-Believe-You campaign, trans-activism, vaccination programs, and so on.
Not unlike going to war, all of these agenda involve collective action, and collective action sometimes – not always but sometimes – requires censorship. Raising concerns about some possible connection between vaccination and autism, even if warranted, threatens to drive compliance below herd immunity. If my child is immunity compromised, and so can’t be vaccinated, your voicing those concerns may kill him. And so “Sorry, but my child’s life trumps your freedom of expression.”
Or so it would were it not that, upon reflection, this translates to the life of your child trumping the life of mine. Competing probability claims may be helpful in deciding whether to shell out for snow tires, but not for playing dice over our children’s lives. And what this means is that all of the above are just straightforward political conflicts, the resolution of which are settled either by negotiation or, failing that, by force of arms. Try recriminalizing abortion in Canada and let’s just see who and how many of us survive the civil war.
That said, I’m not insensitive to the worries of these social justice warriors. That Holocaust denial might rekindle anti-Semitism, that trivializing rape might encourage it, that mocking indigenous exceptionalism might retard reconciliation, and so on. But that’s precisely why I think the academy is the last place in which we should insist that academics be careful about what they say. Look, the historicity of the Holocaust, that a fifteen year-old can’t consent, that death from TB was more rampant in the residential schools than back on the reserve … Like it or not, and however irresponsible it may be to do so, these orthodoxies are going to be challenged. Now where do you suppose these challenges are more likely to go unthinkingly viral? In a venue specifically designed for the critical examination of unorthodox beliefs, or on the street?
That’s why I advocate and practice academic irresponsibility. I say the most outrageous things so that my students can adjudicate them in the classroom. I want them to adjudicate them in the classroom so that they’re equipped to adjudicate them outside of it. Why? Because the classroom is a safe space, a space not safe from being challenged, as the social justice warriors would have it, but rather a space safe to be challenged.